National Rum Day: Sebastian couple travels the world for the love of rum

©Orlando Sentinel

Behind the bar at the home of Horstkamp and Davis. - Trevor Fraser/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

ORLANDO, Fla. — How did a pair of hockey fans from Maryland come to own one of the largest private collections of rum in Florida? It started with a single, cheap bottle. “It’s called Sunset Very Strong Rum,” said Joe Horstkamp, “but the locals just call it ‘strong rum.’”

Horstkamp and his wife, Myssi Davis, were on their honeymoon to the Caribbean islands of St. Vincent. Fans of rum but only ever having what Horstkamp calls “starter rums” (“Your Bacardis, your Captain Morgans,” he explained), the couple decided to visit the St. Vincent distillery on their vacation. That’s where they first encountered this 169-proof liquor, served to island locals from an old gas pump.

“I think we got that for $9 U.S.,” said Davis, pointing to the bottle behind the bar. “It’s right out of the still. Not aged, not proofed-down. Every bar has it on the whole island. There’s 33 islands all together and they all have it. They sing about it.”

“We had never experienced rum you couldn’t get in the U.S.,” said Horstkamp, 45. “That’s what started the passion for collecting rum outside the United States and bringing it back.”

So began a globetrotting adventure that has led to a prize-worthy display of souvenirs. On shelves that run floor to ceiling along three walls of an alcove in their Sebastian home, Horstkamp and Davis have amassed 500 bottles of unique rums.

For being a monument to hard drinking, the collection itself is surprisingly well organized. “Up toward the top are things that are impossible for us to replace,” said Davis, 41. “And we’ve tried to group it by country.”

Throughout the past 15 years, Horstkamp and Davis have journeyed repeatedly to the Caribbean and other world destinations such as Fiji and Hawaii in search of original sugarcane spirits. “In a normal year, we’d go at least once to the Caribbean,” said Davis.

Though 2020 has derailed their current travel plans, the couple has maintained their blog, rumtraveler.com. They post photos and details about the places they visit and the distilleries they’ve seen. “It’s not just about the rum,” said Horstkamp. “It’s also about the destinations. Immersing ourselves in the culture.

“We give pointers and tips for different locations that have some really unique and enjoyable rums.”

Part of their love for rum is rooted in the history and culture surrounding it. “What’s really drawn us to rum is our love of the Caribbean,” said Davis. “The story goes back to the days of pirates and privateers.”

It’s hard not to connect with the past when sampling something such as the Captain Bligh XO from St. Vincent Distillers. “The distillery has actual descendants of the breadfruit trees brought to the island by Captain Bligh,” said Horstkamp.

It’s a history they’ve not only tasted but seen, such as when they visited the River Antoine Rum Distillery in Grenada, which is powered by steam and uses a waterwheel. “I don’t know that they have records that go back as old as that distillery,” said Davis.

But not all of their rums come from exotic locales. “I think Copper Bottom is great in Daytona,” said Davis of one Florida distiller. They also enjoy spirits from Siesta Key, New Orleans and even such unlikely places as Massachusetts.

Having a blog about the wide world of rum has opened doors for the two of them, literally. “I’ve read this article about this guy, Chris Davis (no relation), that had this rum bar in St. Barts,” said Davis. “I called him and said we wanted to come check out his bar.”

When finding the bar proved elusive, they decided to ask at a nearby restaurant. “We go into this restaurant to ask somebody where it is,” said Davis. “It’s not open because it’s not quite dinner yet. And before we even say anything, this waitress says, ‘Are you Joe and Myssi?’”

The waitress proceeded to lead them to a secret room with a keypad lock called The Rhum Room. “It’s like we died and went to French rum heaven,” said Davis. “The bar is small like ours, but he must have had I don’t even know how many rums.

“We spent three for four hours with him.”

The Rhum Room’s specialty is its collection of rhum agricoles, a type of rum made from fresh squeezed cane juice rather than molasses. “I think Americans don’t necessarily have a palate for it yet,” said Davis. “Most people, when I give them a sip from an unaged Agricole, just go ‘Ugh.’ Because it’s earthy.”

Educating themselves and others is one of the main reasons they started the blog. For example, most Americans know rums as coming in varieties of light and dark. But “the industry as a whole is trying to get away from those labels because it really doesn’t tell you anything about the rum,” said Davis.

Dark rums could be aged or they could be artificially colored. White rums may have been bottled out of the still or they may have been aged and then filtered to lose the color.

“What you want to know is what are they fermenting,” said Davis. In addition to molasses, “they can use syrup from the sugarcane. They can use granulated sugar.”

At a distillery in St. Lucia, they were presented with several different rums based on the different varieties of cane used. “It was like a classroom setting,” said David. “It’s absolutely amazing the presentation they put together.”

Another difference that can have an effect on the rum is what kind of still was used. A pot still distills the spirit in one large container, as opposed to a column still, which divides the distilling process. “Column still rums are typically lighter,” said Horstkamp. “Pot stills are a little heavier.”

Then there are questions of geography. Islands often have signature tastes. “Just about every Jamaican rum, I can’t say all of them, but most of them have that banana flavor,” said Horstkamp.

Yet informing people about what’s in a rum, how it was made or where it is from is difficult because labeling restrictions in the U.S. are lax, according to the Rum Travelers. “One of the things people who work in the rum industry are trying to push is transparency in labeling,” said Horstkamp. “Making sure people know what they’re purchasing by looking at the label.”

Davis points to the restrictions on labeling other types of liquors. “Scotch has however many pages of restrictions, tequila has this many,” she said. “When you go to rum, it basically just says that it needs to come from sugarcane.”

There are current movements to add a geographical indication or GI to labels, but those restrictions can vary as well. Jamaica doesn’t allow anything to be called a Jamaican rum unless it is proofed down with water from the island.

Then there is the debate over agricoles, which some argue should only get that name if they come from French islands. Europe has a version of a GI for this called an AOC label. But Horstkamp points out, “there are some American companies that make a similar style rum and still put the agricole label on there.”

In the meantime, Davis and Horstkamp point people to the internet to learn more, such as their website or another lengthy blog called Cocktail Wonk.

They also have some advice for the people who like to start their own collections. “If it’s a flavored rum or it has additives, it’s going to have a shelf life,” said Horstkamp. He also recommends storing bottles away from direct sunlight and heat. “But a good trick is, if you like the rum, drink it before it goes bad.”

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Joe Horstkamp and Myssi Davis run a blog called RumTraveler.com, where they chronicle their experiences getting rum from around the world. - Trevor Fraser/Orlando Sentinel/TNS